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The Sand Cat - A Small and Beautiful Animal of the Desert

Updated on July 4, 2015
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

A sand cat in captivity
A sand cat in captivity | Source

What is a Sand Cat?

The sand cat is a small and beautiful wild cat that is well adapted to life in the hot deserts of Africa, Arabia and Asia. It's about the size of a house cat and has a light, sand-colored coat with darker stripes. Unlike a domestic cat, the sand cat has a wide head with large triangular ears that are positioned far apart. It's also known as the sand dune cat and has the scientific name Felis margarita.

Sand cats are generally nocturnal and secretive animals, although they are sometimes seen during the day. They usually spend their days sleeping in burrows or under scrub vegetation. At dusk they emerge to hunt for prey, which they can hear moving over or under the sand. They obtain all the water that they need from their prey.

At the moment, the global population of sand cats is classified as "Near Threatened" by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). This status is uncertain, however. It's difficult for researchers to get an accurate count of sand cats in an area. The population may actually be "Vulnerable", a more serious category, or alternatively may be of "Least Concern".

Distribution of the sand cat
Distribution of the sand cat | Source

Sand Cat Appearance

A sand cat has soft, thick fur which is pale yellow-brown or grey in color. The distinctiveness of the darker stripes on the animal's body varies. There is a red-brown stripe extending from the outer corner of each eye down the cheek. The tail is tipped with black and has a few black rings near the tip. There are also two dark bars on the forelegs and dark stripes on the hind legs. The cat's undersurface is white or pale yellow.

Based on our current knowledge, sand cats weigh a maximum of seven and a half pounds. They are the second smallest member of the genus Felis. Only the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) is smaller. The sand cat sometimes looks bigger than usual due to the very thick fur that it develops in areas with cold nights. Although most people probably think of the sand cat in association with searing heat, it also encounters freezing cold.

Sand Cat Kittens at the Cincinnati Zoo

Adaptations for Desert Life

Sand cats inhabit an environment with extreme temperatures, They live in sandy or rocky deserts which have sparse clumps of vegetation. The deserts are very hot on a summer day but may have a temperature below freezing at other times. The temperature may reach as high as 126 °F (52 °C) during the day and as low as 23 °F (- 5 °C ) at night, depending on the location and time of year. Given our inadequate knowledge of sand cat locations in the wild, the temperature range in some of their habitats may be even wider than this.

The bodies of sand cats have several adaptations to help them stay cool during the scorching day and prevent heat loss in the freezing cold. Their light fur colour enables them to blend in with their environment and helps prevent their bodies from absorbing too much heat during the day. The thick coat also keeps them warm during the cold desert nights. In addition, sand cats have black hair between their toes and over the pads of their feet. This hair insulates the paws from the hot ground.

The large ears of sand cats give them sensitive hearing and are believed to help them detect the sounds of prey moving in the sand. The ears are very mobile and can be moved into a horizontal position or pointed downwards. The entrance to the ears contains long white hairs, which may protect them from sandstorms.

Felis margarita thinobia, a subspecies sometimes known as the Persian sand cat
Felis margarita thinobia, a subspecies sometimes known as the Persian sand cat | Source

Despite the lack of water in the desert, sand cats are able to survive. They don't drink very often - if at all - and get the water that they need from their food. If water is available they will drink it, however.

Daily Life of a Sand Cat

Sand cats are solitary hunters. They catch underground prey as well as animals moving over the surface of the sand. They eat mainly small rodents like gerbils and jerboas. They also eat reptiles and birds. The cats bury their prey for future use if they are unable to eat it in one sitting.

When they are moving over open ground, sand cats often slink close to the ground with bent legs. They listen carefully for underground movements and sounds, then dig rapidly through the sand to catch an animal. Sand cats are excellent diggers but are not so good at climbing or jumping (although a captive sand cat named Canyon seems to have mastered climbing, as shown in the video below).

Sand cats maintain a territory. A cat sprays urine over vegetation and the ground to indicate its presence to other cats and also releases secretions from scent glands. It doesn't seem to defend its territory, however, and appears to be a peaceful animal. It buries its feces in the sand.

Canyon the Sand Cat

Sand Cat Burrows

Sand cats either dig their own burrow, use an abandoned burrow created by an animal such as a desert fox or enlarge a burrow created by a smaller animal, such as a rodent. They are most active at night when the temperature is lower, but they sometimes appear in the daylight and can occasionally be seen sunbathing near their burrow.

An Israeli researcher using radio telemetry found that the cats in one area traveled an average of 5.4 kilometers a night as they searched for food. The researcher also discovered that a burrow wasn't occupied by the same cat every night.

Sand cats produce a barking sound as a long distance contact call, especially during the mating season. They also meow, hiss, growl, scream, and purr.

Reproduction and Kittens

The only time that sand cats come together is during mating. The female gives birth to two to four kittens, with three being the typical number. The gestation period is fifty nine to sixty six days. There may be one or two litters a year. The first litter is born in April or May; a second litter may be born in October.

The kittens are helpless at first but develop quickly. The leave the burrow when they are about five weeks old. It's thought that in the wild they leave their mother at between four and six months of age. In captivity, sand cats have lived for up to thirteen years, or a little longer according to some sources.

Captive Sand Cats in Israel

Threats to the Sand Cat Population

Although the sand cat is a predator and catches prey, there are other predators that prey on sand cats. These predators include birds of prey, venomous snakes, foxes, jackals, wolves and domestic or feral dogs. In some areas dogs and domestic cats compete with sand cats for food. These animals may also transmit disease or attack the cats.

Even though sand cats live in a harsh environment, their land is valued by some humans. This is causing habitat loss and degradation in some areas. Land in sand cat habitat is being used as grazing land for domestic camels and goats and as a place to build human settlements and roads. In addition, off-road vehicles that are used for recreation are damaging land. Sand cats are sometimes caught in traps set for other animals.

It’s now illegal to hunt sand cats or to trap them for the exotic pet trade in some countries. Some of their habitats are protected as well. Unfortunately, the cats and their habitat are not protected everywhere in their range. Sand cats are sometimes shot or captured while sunning themselves. They are reportedly not aggressive and are sometimes killed for sport. Another problem is that human fighting is taking place in some of the areas where the cats live.

If sand cats are aware of approaching danger during the day, they sometimes crouch down and close their eyes so that light can’t be reflected from the eyes. Coupled with their protective colouration, this makes them hard to see.

A captive sand cat in Denmark
A captive sand cat in Denmark | Source

Population Status

There are four subspecies of sand cats (or six, in the opinion of some researchers). The population as a whole is thought to be only "near threatened", but in some areas a subspecies is endangered. For example, the cats are almost extinct in Israel and the subspecies in Pakistan is also endangered.

Our lack of knowledge about the population status of sand cats makes it hard to know how urgent conservation is throughout their range. They are difficult animals to study. Their cryptic colouring makes them hard to see, as does their habit of closing their eyes when a person approaches and the fact that they are often nocturnal. The hair on the pads of their feet hides their footprints. The fact that they bury their feces also hides their presence and makes dietary analysis difficult. Access to sand cat habitats is sometimes difficult for researchers, especially in areas of human conflict.

Sand Cats - Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo

Conservation

Organizations in different countries are breeding sand cats. Techniques such as in vitro fertilization and the transfer of frozen reproductive cells and embryos between zoo facilities are being used to try to keep the captive population genetically healthy.

Zoos are controversial institutions, but successful captive breeding programs can help to preserve endangered species. It would be a great shame to discover that sand cats are in trouble over a large part of their range and that it's too late to help them. Taking action to protect the species now seems like a wise precaution.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I'd never heard of the sand cat before reading your hub. What a beautiful cat. Very interesting and education hub. I am just on my way out but will come back and revisit your hub tomorrow as I did not have time to watch the videos which I want to see.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for commenting, Susan. I think that the sand cat is beautiful, too! I hope that you enjoy the videos.

    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Wow, are they ever beautiful cats! So interesting! I had never heard of them before, either. Thanks for sharing! :) Voted up and very interesting! :)

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Alicia-What an intriguing hub you've written on these cats. They do look like domestic cats but I sure wouldn't bring one home. It's hard to believe these cats can survive in the hot desert. Excellent writing and loved the video as well.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, KathyH! I appreciate your visit.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 5 years ago from California Gold Country

      Yes they are adorable and amazing. They probably would not appreciate the hugs we would like to give them. Thanks for doing them justice.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Linda. No, I wouldn't want to bring a sand cat home either! They're cute, but they are wild animals. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Rochelle. Yes, sand cats do look adorable! It's very hard to remember that they are wild creatures and not domestic animals. Thank you for the comment.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

      Very cool looking animal!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, A.A. Zavala. I agree - sand cats are cool animals! Thanks for the visit.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Fascinating and well done, Alicia. Voted up. Sand cats are charming and those kits have 'take-me-home' eyes. I have also written about a smll nocturnal animal that lives in those deserts - the 'sand puppy' or "Naked Mole Rat." Similar habits. Different species.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, drbj. The kittens' eyes are appealing! It's interesting that animals living in similar habitats often have similar ways of dealing with the environment.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Fascinating info. Go, Cincinnati Zoo!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 5 years ago from South Africa

      Oh, they are beautiful and adorable, but, of course, wild and not to be cuddled. Alicia, you are brilliant in this niche. I love to read your work and would like to read many more during 2012.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Maren Morgan. It's great that there are some zoos that help animals! Thanks for the comment.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for the lovely comment, Martie! I love nature and animals and enjoy writing about these topics. It's interesting that the sand cat is in some ways similar to a domestic cat and yet in other ways very different. It looks like it could be cuddled, but I'm sure that we would have a nasty shock if we tried to do that!

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      These are beautiful cats Alicia and those kittens are impossibly cute. It's a shame that yet another species is under threat in the wild, and we can only hope that sand cats can be adequately protected

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, CMHypno. I hope very much that sand cats are protected too. They are interesting and lovely animals. Thanks for the visit.

    • homesteadbound profile image

      Cindy Murdoch 5 years ago from Texas

      How cute! They do look just like domestic cats. Although their ears are bigger, they do not seem to be out of proportion. I have never heard of them before and found it very interesting that they had hair on the bottom of their feet - a very interesting but useful adaptation.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Yes, I agree, sand cats are cute and they do have interesting adaptations for desert life! Thank you for the comment, homesteadbound.

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 5 years ago

      This Hub of yours on the Sand Cats is now one of my Favorites Alicia. They really are adorable...May they stay Safe and Happy! Loved the Videos as well, they were so Educational.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, b. Malin. I appreciate your comment! I hope that sand cats stay safe and happy too.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Alicia,

      I watched all the videos and between those and your hub learned much that I did not know about sand cats. Hopefully they will be able to live and thrive in the wild for as long as our earth exists. It is a shame that these beautiful animals are impacted by changes in the environment and also wars between men. All the up votes except funny. Really enjoyed this hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Peggy. I too hope that sand cats have a successful future. It would be a great shame if they disappeared from the Earth.

    • natures47friend profile image

      natures47friend 5 years ago from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand.

      Oh what a stunning kittie! Soooo cute...men and their wars. They do not think of other species with their selfishness. Thank you so much for writing about the sand cat...such a beautiful animal. Up , awesome and beautiful!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and for all the votes, natures47friend! I appreciate your visit.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      Oh what a beautiful cat; I have to admit that I have never heard of them.

      Thank you so much for sharing as I really enjoyed this one.

      Take care and enjoy your day.

      Eddy.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Eddy. Yes, sand cats are beautiful. I'd love to observe them in their natural habitat! Thanks for the comment.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Well there's one I've never heard of! They've surely got a distinctive face. It's always good to see awareness and education spread of endangered species.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Yes, the sand cat's face is interesting! It shows us that sand cats aren't domestic cats, even though the two animals have similarities. Thanks for the comment, Wesman Todd Shaw.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      Very interesting! I love that some group had the foresight to ship some cats out of the Middle East to conservation sites in 2000 to preserve the genetic diversity and the species in case of a disaster during Desert Storm. Great hub and I'll share it with my followers:)

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 5 years ago from New Jersey

      I am an animal lover, especially of cats--both domestic and wild. I actually wrote a whole research paper on ocelots. But I have never heard about or seen sand cats before. Thanks for enligthening me!

    • cebutouristspot profile image

      cebutouristspot 5 years ago from Cebu

      That Cat look very cute. Too bad they live in the dessert. Nice kitty :D Thanks for sharing

    • rlaha profile image

      rlaha 5 years ago from Spartanburg, SC

      Hi. These cats are such cute cats! Thank you for writing the article! Voted up and interesting!

    • chamilj profile image

      chamilj 5 years ago from Sri Lanka

      They are really beautiful. Informative hub. Voted up!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the share, and for the information too, Kris! I appreciate them all.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Stephanie. Thank you for the comment. I love animals, including cats, too!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, cebutouristspot. Yes, sand cats are cute, although they're definitely not cuddly! Thanks for commenting.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, riaha. I appreciate them.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, chamilj. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I agree, sand cats are beautiful. They're fascinating animals as well.

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 5 years ago from SE MA

      Ooh.. very pretty animal. I'd never seen a picture before - or knew anything about them! I'm going to share this..

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for commenting and for the share, Pcunix! I agree with you - sand cats are pretty animals.

    • profile image

      Lozzirox 4 years ago

      Sooooooooo cute!!!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit, Lozzirox. I think that sand cats are cute too!

    • profile image

      Lozzirox 4 years ago

      I wish that they weren't endangered so that I could have a pet one and not worry about them dying out :(

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi again, Lozzirox. Thanks for your comments! It is tempting to keep a wild cat as a pet, as long as it isn't endangered, but exotic pets are hard to care for and keep happy, especially if they haven't been bred in captivity.

    • profile image

      Hannah 2 years ago

      Thanks for the info

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Hannah.

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